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Watchdogs Howl Over AT&T's FaceTime Policy

Watchdogs Howl Over AT&T's FaceTime Policy

When iOS' FaceTime video chat feature debuted on iPhones, AT&T subscribers were limited to using it only on WiFi. Now, however, AT&T will let subscribers use it on the cellular network as well -- if those subscribers sign up for a new, and possibly more expensive, Mobile Share data plan. Consumer watchdogs say that policy is a violation of FCC Net neutrality rules.

By Richard Adhikari MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
08/22/12 7:00 AM PT

AT&T is once again catching a fresh batch of grief over how it's dealing with iPhone users. This time, the carrier is drawing flak from advocacy groups for requiring users to sign up for one of the company's new Mobile Share data plans if they want to use iOS's FaceTime video chat app over AT&T's wireless network rather than WiFi.

Public Knowledge and Free Press contend that this requirement is a breach of the Federal Communications Commission's rules on Net neutrality.

In general, Net neutrality advocates there be no restrictions imposed by providers or governments on consumers' access to the Internet. The FCC formally published its Net neutrality rules, also called the "Open Internet" following a heated debate.

However, AT&T iPhone users have always used FaceTime over WiFi, and AT&T isn't forcing them to stop using WiFi and move over to its wireless network. Rather, it's stating that those who want to use FaceTime over its network have to switch to one of the new service plans in order to use the feature on the cellular network as well.

Consumers can retain their existing plans if they only wish to use FaceTime over WiFi.

Free to Choose?

"Data is data, and AT&T can't sell one user 3 GB and another 1 GB and then turn around and tell the 3 GB user how they can and cannot use their data," Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, told MacNewsWorld.

"FaceTime has only worked on the iPhone over WiFi because the app's owner didn't enable it over mobile until now," Aaron continued. "Now mobile FaceTime is a feature of the device."

For comparison, Aaron pointed out that the grocer "doesn't make you buy an extra loaf of bread if you stop purchasing potato chips. But according to AT&T, to use your phone to make video telephone calls, which could reduce the amount of voice minutes you need to buy from AT&T, you'll first need to pay AT&T more money for less data and unlimited voice minutes."

Granted, users can opt to make FaceTime calls over WiFi as they always have, but "they pay for their data connections [and] should be able to use [their phones] for what they bought them for," John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, told MacNewsWorld. "AT&T should follow the FCC's rules."

A Block by Any Other Name

Even though AT&T lets subscribers use FaceTime over its network as long as they upgrade to a shared data plan, it can be considered to be blocking their access to the service because "it's still blocking even if you can avoid the blocking by paying extra," Public Knowledge's Bergmayer stated.

"In the case of ISPs attempting to charge Internet services to reach customers, for example, the FCC has been very clear that 'You can't reach our customers unless you pay extra' constitutes blocking," Bergmayer elaborated.

The specific FCC rule that AT&T is violating is 47CFR8.5(b), Free Press's Aaron alleged. This states that "a person engaged in the provision of mobile broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not block consumers from accessing lawful Web sites, subject to reasonable network management; nor shall such person block applications that compete with the provider's voice or video telephony services, subject to reasonable network management."

Carriers Red in Tooth and Claw

Granted, AT&T doesn't offer subscribers a video calling service that competes directly with FaceTime, but "it is not necessary for two products to be identical to compete," Public Knowledge's Bergmayer pointed out. "FaceTime competes with AT&T's voice service, since some users might use FaceTime instead of making a voice call."

For example, many people call each other on the Skype service instead of making international or expensive calls, Bergmayer said. "Like Skype, FaceTime is a substitute for voice calling in many circumstances."

Perhaps the FCC, which is reported to be looking into the matter, might do what it did with Verizon. In that case, the FCC required Verizon to allow Android users to use their devices for tethering at no charge as part of a consent decree.

The FCC did not respond to our request to comment.


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